Among the important chapters in Hawaii’s history, few are as poignant or heroic as the story of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai. And few figures have touched as many lives and hearts quite like Father Damien. Even today, more than a century after his death, the legacy of this remarkable Belgian priest endures.
The first case of leprosy in Hawaii was documented in 1835 on Kauai. Thirty years later, as the disease slowly spread, King Kamehameha V signed into law an “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” authorizing the setting apart of Kalaupapa for the purpose of isolating patients afflicted with the disease.
By the time Damien arrived at Kalaupapa to care for the patients in 1873, the situation had reached crisis proportions. Patients from other islands were literally pushed from boats into the harsh waters off the settlement, leaving the stricken to swim to shore. The Hawaiians called leprosy “Mai hookaawale,” or “the separating disease.”
A telling expression of the time was “Prepare for Molokai as for the grave.”
Looking over the disease-ravaged outcasts, Damien was moved with compassion. Although his stay at Kalaupapa was supposed to be temporary, he soon petitioned for a permanent stay. “The sick are dying by the boatloads,” he wrote to his superiors. “They die in droves.”
Damien spent the next 16 years ministering to his new congregation, washing their sores, changing their dressings and tirelessly fighting for much-needed medicine, food and clothing. It was an exhausting and arduous labor of love, and Damien performed most of it on his own. Donations by visiting physicians were left on a fence post to avoid physical contact.
Inevitably, Damien himself contracted the disease. Although severely weakened, he continued to work at Kalaupapa before finally succumbing. Damien died on April 15, 1889. He was 49.
National Historical Park
Today, leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) is controlled by modern medicine and is no longer a public threat. Kalaupapa is now a national historical park.
In June 1995, Father Damien was formally beatified by Pope John Paul II in Belgium. Beatification is a preliminary step toward canonization or being declared a saint.